Nokia's Internet Tablets: Certainly Not iPhone Clones
Speaking of mobile Internet access, I have a confession. For the past few months, while I wait for the furnace to warm my abode, I’ve been surfing the web and checking email in bed using handheld electronic devices. At first, I exclusively relied on an Apple iPhone; even though I haven’t kept my month-to-month AT&T cellular plan active, I can still leverage the device’s data connectivity via Wi-Fi. Later, after encountering some shortcomings in the iPhone’s capabilities (which I’ll get to in a minute), I added a Nokia N800 Internet Tablet to my early-morning tech widget mix. And, frankly to my great surprise, of late I’ve been exclusively reaching for the N800. Why?
First, let’s cover the similarities and differences between the two platforms. Nokia’s Internet Tablet line currently consists of three models (the company’s product strategy is neatly spelled out in a recent GigaOM writeup):
- The 770, introduced in November 2005 and the beneficiary of a notable O/S patch in mid-2006.
- The second-generation N800, announced at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show and an ergonomic and cosmetic revamp. As I previously mentioned, it doubles the amount of onboard DRAM and flash memory as compared to its predecessor, along with migrating to a newer and faster Texas Instruments ARM-based OMAP CPU. Other enhancements versus its precursor include a migration from RS-MMC to SD cards for memory expansion, from a mono speaker to two-channel speaker set, and the incorporation of a built-in camera and FM radio tuner. It also initially ran a one-year-newer iteration of the Debian GNU/Linux-based Internet Tablet OS.
- The third-generation N810, announced last October and available in stores one month later. Versus the N800, it adds a backlit physical keyboard and GPS capabilities, but it also simplifies (webcam) and eliminates (second memory card slot, FM radio) some N800 features. It runs the 2008 version of the Internet Tablet OS, which Nokia also provided for the N800 as a user-installable upgrade a few weeks ago.
Perhaps the most notable omission you’ll discern about the Internet Tablets, both absolutely and relative to the similarly-priced iPhone alternative and particularly ironic given that they come from Nokia, is their lack of integrated cellular telephone capability. They’re also somewhat bulkier than the iPhone, in part because they embed a slightly larger and notably higher-resolution LCD and in part because they integrate additional buttons for user control versus the iPhone’s greater reliance on its touchpad interface.
Both platforms offer Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity, the latter in both cases unfortunately absent A2DP support. The N800’s camera is more function-versatile than that of the iPhone, because it rotates, and the N810 offers GPS and a physical keyboard to supplement the on-screen virtual keyboard, both of which the iPhone lacks. Memory card expansion and FM radio capability (on the N800) are additional enhancements of Nokia’s products over the iPhone alternative; conversely, the iPhone embeds an accelerometer.
Most of the differences between the two platforms, however, manifest in software. The iPhone runs OS X, provides a compelling touch-centric GUI that makes maximum use of the LCD real estate, and taps into the Apple iTunes and PIM ecosystem. Conversely, the Internet Tablets leverage Linux, offer a more traditional (albeit touch-enhanced…including handwriting recognition which the stylus-less iPhone doesn’t support) user interface, don’t provide a full-featured PIM suite out-of-box, and can’t comprehend iTunes-sourced audio and video content since Nokia lacks a FairPlay DRM license.
However, at least until Apple releases the iPhone SDK (and arguably even after that point, since Apple will insist on application signing as a means of retaining platform control), the Internet Tablets’ Linux heritage is a tremendous boon to their versatility. In addition to the various Nokia-supplied programs (the platform’s UPnP media-streaming capabilities are one of many notable achievements), numerous third-party applications come standard with the Internet Tablets…Gizmo Project and Skype VoIP clients, for example, along with a Rhapsody digital music player. And the Internet Tablet platform’s inevitable embrace by the open source community, enthusiastically supported by Nokia from documentation and SDK standpoints, has led to the release of (literally) hundreds of additional applications.
So if you’re interested in exploring the Internet Tablet ecosystem, which hardware option should you choose? Right now, if you search through the archives of price-monitoring services such as Dealnews and Techbargains, you’ll regularly see the 770 (which may or may not still be in production, but there still seems to be retailer inventory) on sale for less than $150. The N800 will run you $200-250, and the N810 is $400+. Unless you’re on a really tight budget (and if you are, see my in-progress Ebay auction), I can’t heartily recommend the 770, even though its Mameo open source application archive is currently more abundant than that of its successors. The 770’s O/S build is old and (presumably) no longer being maintained by Nokia, although the open source community has stepped in to fill the void, and its already mentioned hardware limitations versus the N800 are also notable. Conversely, unless you’ve got money to burn, I’d either skip the N810 for now and go with a N800 instead, or wait a while for N810 prices to inevitably drop. Don’t get me wrong; the physical keyboard would be great, but it’s not worth the extra $200 (or more), in my mind.
Followup: An A2DP-supportive media player for Nokia’s Internet Tablets does exist, as it turns out, but it’s not Nokia-developed, it hasn’t seemingly been upgraded since it was unveiled last summer, and its A2DP support is deemed ‘experimental’. If you’ve tried it (or if you try it after reading this), let your fellow readers and I know how it works, and with which Internet Tablet and headphones you’ve used it.